The Ocelot King and Queen of Belize

By Bart Harmsen, Ph.D.
Director, Belize Program; Conservation Scientist


Months ago, we brought you the stories of Ben and F11-9, two jaguars that have been central to Panthera and the Belize Audubon Society’s jaguar study in Belize’s Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world’s longest to date. But jaguars aren’t the only species we study in this rich ecosystem. Meet the ocelots M12-1 and F13-2, who are the parents of their own wild cat dynasty. Motion-activated cameras, or camera traps, give us a wealth of knowledge into the secretive lives of felines, including this ocelot pair. Not only can we monitor individual cats over time through the distinctive markings on their fur, but we can also observe wild cat behavior and even track their interactions. Read on to learn about the exciting behavior we noticed these two ocelots exhibit. 

Over the past two decades, Panthera and the Belize Audubon Society have documented the lives of jaguars in the world’s first jaguar reserve: the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize. This biodiverse, forested landscape is also home to four other species of wild cats studied by Panthera: pumas, jaguarundis, margays and ocelots. Although the remaining smaller wild cats prove elusive, ocelots make regular appearances on our camera traps and are, fortunately, easily distinguishable by their coat patterns, making them relatively accessible for research. 

Just as in our extensive jaguar research, we’ve diligently pursued data on ocelots, seeking insights into their lineage and population dynamics within the reserve. For instance, the jaguars Ben and F11-9 are known to have conceived cubs together, establishing F11-9 as the revered “jaguar matriarch” of the Cockscomb Basin after bearing numerous, thriving jaguar cubs. These dynamics are crucial in understanding the comprehensive ecology and conservation of jaguars. Likewise, ocelots, though much smaller in size, hold equal significance in this wildlife reserve.

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©Panthera/Belize Audubon Society

Spotting a Spotted Cat Couple 

Despite their distinct markings, establishing definitive ocelot lineages has proven challenging. However, we discovered two ocelots roaming the jungle floor searching for opossums to eat, marking plants with their scents and stealthily scanning the thicket for other cats. These were M12-1 and F13-2, both named for their gender and the first year in which they were detected (male-2012 and female-2013, respectively). M12-1 displayed the typical traits of a male ocelot, patrolling his territory and scent-marking foliage. Then, our enthusiasm and curiosity piqued when we observed that the two ocelots’ territories overlapped, adding a new layer of excitement and intrigue to our research. 

Upon meticulous examination of our camera trap records, we made an exciting discovery: M12-1 and F13-2 had been captured on the same camera trap, mere moments apart!  The implications were clear — these ocelots had likely mated. Excitedly, we monitored our camera traps for evidence of F13-2 in the following months, eager to see what might be in tow. After some patient waiting, we were rewarded with a glimpse of a diminutive, spotted frame — it was a kitten! 

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©Panthera/Belize Audubon Society

Raising an Ocelot Kitten 

F13-2 quickly taught this female cub essential survival skills, which are especially critical in the first five to six vulnerable months. Soon, the cub became proficient in hunting, and many camera trap images have documented her survival to adulthood, serving as more evidence that F13-2's motherhood had been a success. F13-2 proved a budding matriarch of Cockscomb, just like F11-9 the jaguar. 

But the line of succession did not stop there. F13-2's multigenerational impact was confirmed when another cub walked across the lens of a camera trap — this time the cub of F13-2's daughter, making F13-2 a grandmother. Now, she was a true matriarch, her genes having been passed down across two generations to help grow this ocelot population and help ensure this crucial ecosystem is balanced and healthy.


The Future of Cockscomb’s Ocelots 

In the intricate tapestry of ecosystems, resident carnivores play an indispensable role. In this landscape filled with tapirs, monkeys and ocelot-fearing opossums, carnivores like jaguars, pumas, margays, jaguarundis and, of course, ocelots, are pivotal in maintaining the delicate balance of this complex web of life. F13-2 and M12-1 are just two components of this kingdom of wild cats, two parents establishing a lineage that will hopefully last long into the future, just like Ben’s and F11-9's. How many more ocelot and jaguar kings and queens roam Cockscomb Basin? How many pumas, margays and jaguarundis have carved out their own regal legacies? Both M12-1 and F13-2 have been spotted on camera trap as recently as June 2023. While these two ocelots will one day perish, their genes will walk the forest floor of the Cockscomb Basin for the foreseen future. There is still so much we have yet to learn. 

Learn more about ocelots and the newly established Dr. Alan Rabinowitz Research Centre, named after Panthera’s founder, on its grounds. You can also read more about our long-term monitoring of male and female jaguars in the Cockscomb Basin.